Bad guys and teenage spies

Author, journalist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz talks to about the business of children’s literature and the changing villains in our stories

Image: Orion Publishing

Image: Orion Publishing

Author of the Alex Rider and The Power of Five series, screenwriter and University of York alumni, Anthony Horowitz requires no introduction.

When he graduated from university in 1977, the hugely successful young adult writer “had absolutely no ambition to write for young people whatsoever”. In his time at York, he flourished in what he called a “fantastically creative environment”, spending his three years “writing plays and books and poetry and all sorts of things”. But he makes it clear that while York was conducive for his craft, it was not where he started writing: “I was a writer before I came to university,” he clarifies, “I was born a writer; there was nothing else for it.”

The city also had a part in his writing, the first book of The Power of Five series Raven’s Gate situated in York. “Power of Five came about because of my love for Tolkien growing up and wondering if it was possible to write a book similar to Lord of the Rings in some ways, but set in the real world,” he explains, “If it is possible to have mythical creatures fighting each other, but in the streets of York.”

The Alex Rider series, on the other hand, was born out of his love for Ian Fleming; James Bond transposed into a fourteen-year-old. Underneath the seemingly benign idea of a teenage spy, however, is a more sobering inspiration, coming from the political atmosphere of the time, particularly the Iraq War: “They were inspired by the invasion of Iraq and by the sense that we can no longer trust the government or intelligent services; that we were, if you like, children who can no longer trust adults.” Having “provoked the books and gotten [him] angry enough to write them”, the thought that has gone into the pages of exciting, fast-paced adventures that we consumed as children demonstrates the depth and complexity of his stories.

They were inspired by the sense that we can no longer trust the government; that we were, if you like, children who can no longer trust adults

Horowitz is sharp and critical in equal measure, but despite his confidence is always carefully guarded when answering my questions. Offense is his best defense when he sees an “implied criticism” of his books at the mere suggestion of a parallel between his characters in his young adult novels and the demographic he writes for. “I think that it would be very hard for me to write convincingly about an Asian boy or an Asian girl, or, shall we say, an Afro-Caribbean boy because it’s not my experience,” he reasons, “I think you can only write what you know about and I’m really writing about the boy that I was. If I were a braver writer, I would perhaps have pushed the boundaries a little further.” He is also incredibly shrewd and prudent in his considerations: “Somebody once said a very interesting thing to me which is that if Alex Rider had been Muhammad Rider, I could knock two zeros off my sales. It’s a terrible thought, but it’s probably true.”

Giving the rationale for his preoccupation with the liminal position of fourteen and fifteen year-olds, he elucidates, “I’m interested in that brief window in your life when you’re neither a child nor an adult; where you’re not yet independent, where you can still be taken out of your comfort zone very easily, but where you have nonetheless the beginnings of the adult you will become.” But the ages of his protagonists are also carefully calculated. Introducing the arithmetic of children’s literature, he reveals, “Young children like to read about children older than them. It’s as simple as that. If my character is twelve, fourteen year-olds are not going to read about him. It’s very, very easy to arrive at that age.”

Despite the extremely deliberate decisions he makes for his target audience, he sharply defends the mature socio-political undercurrents in his young adult fiction, particularly in the last few books of the series. “It doesn’t align to the target audience because you’re suggesting that I’m writing the books specifically to please the audience, rather than writing the books based on what I see and what I’m inspired by,” he says chidingly. Citing the banking scandal, MPs’ expenses scandals and scandals in the church and BBC, he maintains that his work is a product of “a very peculiar time when all the pillars of the state have proven themselves very untrustworthy” and that current affairs fuel his books, “translating them into the fairly simple terms of the sort of young adult fiction that I write”.

Speaking particularly about the final installment of The Power of Five series Oblivion that described a near-apocalyptic world where evil supernatural forces had taken over governments, he summarises it as “a collection of all the bad things that are happening in the world in one book.” He expounds further, “The Old Ones, these mythical creatures, do appear in the book, but the book is not about people in armour with horns pointing their finger and sparks coming out. What the books are about are conglomerates and industry and politics and the people who are destroying the world, and I think that’s what makes a book stronger. I just had no particular interest in doing devils and witches. The point is that they are the monsters.”

Astutely pragmatic, he is acutely aware of the sort of writer he is and will not apologise for it. “Well, I’d like to write a huge novel, like a 19th-century Dickens novel, set in the 21st century,” he says in a rare moment of contemplation, “I’d like to write something that was more based on character and society and less on violence and chases. I’d like to write a book that was more meaningful. But I know my limitations, I know what I’m good at, so whether I will write that book or not remains to be seen.” His immensely practical sensibility is nearly defiant of the image of the idealistic children’s author as someone who couldn’t care less about numbers and figures or popularity, but it is his unapologetic self-assuredness that is the most disconcerting.

I’m one of the very few writers in the country who is brave enough to support Michael Gove publicly

He enjoys being a contrarian, refusing to defend his genre against criticism of adults who enjoy reading young adult fiction. While acknowledging the right to read whatever people want, he admits, “I personally find it slightly strange when adults, on mass, read young adult fiction. And even when Harry Potter was at its height, the sight of fully grown men immersed in the world of Hogwarts, I thought it odd, to be honest with you. There is so much wonderful fiction out there that is for adults, why not start there?”

His eloquence mostly hides his guardedness, but he is blatantly cautious when we broach the subject of education, prefacing his remarks by reminding me that he is “not entirely qualified to answer your question.” “I think teachers are doing a pretty good job and they don’t need people like me to criticise them,” he says carefully. He chooses a conservative answer: “If I could change anything in schools it would be the libraries, I would make every single school in the country have a librarian. It’s not at the moment statutory, but it should be. I would have much more time allocated to reading texts for pleasure rather than taking paragraphs out for exams. And I would have fewer exams, fewer league tables and more discovery about what writing has to offer. My feeling is that the syllabus is too narrow. I’m sorry that children can come out of school and have never read poems by some of the poets that I love.”

Safely championing creativity “both in reading and in writing”, he refuses to name examples of particular texts that he would like to see on the syllabus to avoid being self-defeatingly “prescriptive”. “At what age are you talking about? Primary school? Secondary school? I think I’ve answered the question. I don’t think there’s any need for me to give you a list of writers,” he spits with finality.

Highly intelligent, he is a man of contradiction. On one hand, he is so shrewdly brilliant that he has practically made the creative endeavour of writing a business venture, and yet he is also a young adult writer who holds “meeting young people who like [his] books” as the most rewarding thing about his profession, even now as he is “stopping writing for young people to a large extent”. Although he is never vulnerable at any point in our conversation, he is at his most sincere as he reiterates, “I love the idea that I’ve been a tiny part of people’s lives.”

Throughout the interview, Horowitz remains intelligent, articulate and expressive either explaining the rationale behind or confidently defending his decisions. Even his revelations are measured, calculated and never quite revealing. It may have been more than a little ironic that he bemoaned being disappointed that, in an interview with Michael Gove, they didn’t have a “franker” conversation. “I’m one of the very few writers in the country who is brave enough to support him publicly,” he says, the only time in the interview when he was visibly frustrated, he said “I did think that he would talk to me in a more humane way, that he would understand that I was not there as a journalist, I was there almost as an admirer, to try and understand the man that could possibly formulate all these dictates in education.”

As admirers of his books, perhaps we can only try and understand the man that could possibly create such extraordinary worlds in young adult fiction.

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